Disability Studies Quarterly
Winter 2005, Volume 25, No. 1
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies

"When I Move, You Move":
Thoughts on the Fusion of Hip-Hop and Disability Activism

Rebecca A. Adelman
Department of Women's Studies
The Ohio State University
E-mail: adelman.27@osu.edu

John Hockenberry, a TV journalist who is a wheelchair user, writes, "Loss of control is a dark fear, particularly in America" (1995, p. 100). America worries over those bodies it cannot seem to control and those who cannot seem to control their own bodies. Accordingly, the American cultural landscape is marked by constructions of both people of color and people with disabilities as "out of control"; American history is a chronicle of efforts to expose, manage, and discipline those bodies. We as a culture are inclined to use the "obedience" of a body as a "metaphor for its moral health" (Mairs, 1996, p. 57), but in this paper, I reverse that equation by seeking out disobedient bodies and using their knowledges as a measure of our culture. Hip-hop articulations and disability activism are meaningfully embodied counterdiscourses, which recognize that American culture disciplines non-normativity first by defining it.

This project emerged from a conviction that there is radical potential in "heterogeneity" (Childs, 2003, p. 8), and I begin by theorizing my methodology. I analyze what I have identified as broad historical overlaps between activism for disability rights and hip-hop. This serves as the foundation for my analysis of the role of hip-hop within disability activism; I then consider the place of disability within hip-hop. These analytical frameworks enable my reading of the music video to the song "Stand Up" by hip-hop artist Ludacris, which functions as an example of the types of insights that can emerge when we theorize at the site where identities intersect. Beyond the textual analysis of a cultural artifact, the goal of this paper is to identify a new site of disability studies inquiry (hip-hop), while delineating the stakes and implications of critical forays into it.


In a way, nothing more needs to be said about disability or hip-hop, not because the work has already been done, but because both are already overly re-presented (if not represented), particularly by those who do not identify personally with either community. The construction of the disabled-person-as-spectacle has been amply documented, and there is something of the spectacular in the prevailing representations of hip-hop culture as well. The white American mainstream understands and depicts it as violent, sexual, misogynist, and artless; it is easily appropriated as a spectacle for white audiences because of the colors of the bodies associated with it. (This is just one legacy of American blackface minstrelsy.)

Lennard J. Davis argues that disabled bodies are subject to the regime of "[n]ormalcy" as a Foucauldian "location of bio-power" (1995, p. 129); bodies of color are similarly scrutinized against norms of whiteness. In order for my research to be productive rather than discursively violent, I needed to disentangle my desire to produce knowledge about things that are already laboriously "known" from the apparatuses of knowing that victimize them, to "disarticulate the power of punishment from the power of recognition" (Butler, 1993, p. 122). This is especially crucial, given that I occupy the subject positions that have been responsible for the most damaging knowledge produced about disabled bodies and the cultural practices of people of color; that is: I'm a nondisabled white academic, and so I have tried to proceed in a spirit of "wonder" (Brueggemann, Thomson, and Kleege, forthcoming, p. 4) rather than objectifying curiosity.

Because language is knitted tightly into knowledge and power, I have chosen my words carefully. My use of phrases like "disability activism" is shorthand intended to signal a body (pun intended) of work on a number of different axis, realized with a variety of strategies, undertaken with a spectrum of goals. When I refer to "hip-hop culture," I do so with the recognition that hip-hop is more than music (Pough, 2003, p. 233), and I am collapsing, for clarity's sake, a variety of different styles of music (including rap), performance, dance, art, and dress to refer to a cultural, political, and aesthetic genre with a particular and coherent history, present, and philosophy of expression. I theorize hip-hop as a subculture comprised primarily of people of color; while there are white people who strongly identify with it, a sound historical argument can be made for locating the roots of hip-hop within African-American and Latino communities (Quintero, 2003, p. 212). (Even the popularity of white hip-hop artists shouldn't be understood as a "whitening" of the form; I would argue that when a white musician "crosses over" into hip-hop, that crossing is often, if implicitly, understood as artistic and racial, which might begin to explain why artists like Vanilla Ice and Eminem garner so much attention. ) I use hip-hop culture and disability activism primarily as analytics, and less so as sites of inquiry; my project is to seek out possible ideological connections between the two, rather than to deeply analyze either one. It might be possible to criticize this work for a dangerous conflation: that of hip-hop with African-Americans. But I believe that any discussion about hip-hop must begin by attending to racism. Hip-hop is widely portrayed as the "worst" of African-Americanness; if there is not room for people of color in general, then it follows that there would not be much tolerance for their seeming "excesses."

Though it is an important discussion, the ongoing debates about the misogyny and homophobia of hip-hop is only peripheral to my work here. I proceed with the understanding that hip-hop is diverse: There is some that can rightfully be critiqued as problematic or violent, but there is just as much that is celebratory, empowering, and radical. For my purposes, it suffices to say that "[d]espite popular belief, hip-hop is not the most prominent site of sexism and misogyny in American society, but a reflection of the sexism and misogyny that more powerfully circulates within American culture" (Neal, 2004). Hip-hop was originally intended to be a "cross-cultural" and "transcommunal" art form (Moraru, 2001, p. 115; Quintero, 2003, p. 215); white fascination with hip-hop's misogyny and homophobia can be understood as a strategy to avoid acknowledgment of those things within the white community. (Of course, criticisms of hip-hop do not come only from white people. Many people of color have urged the hip-hop community to take a firmly anti-sexist and anti-homophobic stance. These critiques are necessarily different from white polemics, originating as they do from marginalized subject positions.) Nelson George writes that what can be understood as the "worst" of hip-hop is actually "rooted in this country's dysfunctional values" (1998, p. xiii), and white criticism of hip-hop appears especially spurious when we consider that the overwhelming majority of people buying hip-hop albums are white men (Neal, 2004). Though it is problematic to overstate the white influence on hip-hop (George, 1998, p. 190), it is important to recognize white power and complicity, and the discursive violence attendant in the identification of hip-hop as irredeemably sexist and homophobic. Such labeling erases both the agency of women who use hip-hop as a form of protest against racist and sexist discrimination and denies the existence of queer people of color, who have contributed greatly to the gay rights movement (McRuer, 1997) and found a home within the hip-hop community (Hardy, 2001).

Why A Comparison of Hip-Hop and Disability Makes Sense

"The physically extraordinary figure ... is as essential to the cultural project of American self-making as the varied throng of gendered, racial, ethnic, and sexual figures of otherness that support the privileged norm" (Thomson, 1997, p. 5). America has made itself through processes of discriminatory categorization and exclusion, but the discriminated-against, categorized, and excluded have fashioned oppositions; disability activism and hip-hop culture emerged as protests against disenfranchisement. The contemporary commercialization of hip-hop is facilitated by a cultural context that has always appreciated black cultural productions while denying their aesthetic merit and political complexity (T. Rose, 1994, p. 65) and partially occludes its radical genesis; most scholars of hip-hop emphasize that hip-hop today is a profoundly modified version of the original.

Beyond a rough coevalness in the late 20th century, there are also broad thematic and theoretical alignments between hip-hop culture and disability activism, attributable largely to the way that discourses of normativity function in the U.S. "Normal" is defined as white/male/heterosexual/nondisabled; all other formations get marked as "non-normative" (Ferguson, 2004). Racism and ableism have predictably similar consequences like poverty and state-sanctioned discrimination, but there are other, more apocryphal parallels as well. Black bodies and cultures are "'endangered'" (Cole and Guy-Sheftall, 2001, p. 203), and there is a persistent and wholly justifiable fear present in much of disability activism that technologies like cochlear implants and gene therapy will render disabled people extinct in a misguided attempt to make them "normal." But while the worth of discursively non-normative bodies is consistently denied, those bodies are also repeatedly spectacularized in a process of endless "remind"-ing (Paterson, 2001, p. 93) of their corporeality. The "normate" harms people of color and people with disabilities (Quayson, 2003, p. 108-9), and hip-hop and disability are "subcultures" to the extent that self-identification there occurs in the "corporeal or affective dimension" (Sweetman, 2001, p. 184). Tricia Rose writes that hip-hop holds out the possibility of taking "pleasure" from "social rupture" (1994, p. 39) of dominant norms; this should sound delightfully familiar to disability activists.

Though we have moved beyond the time when legal categories of "disabled" and "non-white" were extensively mutually constitutive (Baynton, 2001, p. 36), the cultural, symbolic, and discursive relationships between the two remain salient. The "freakishness" of women like Julia Pastrana, a Mexican Indian woman who was billed as "The Ugliest Woman in the World," and Saartje Baartman, a South African whose trademark features were her large buttocks and supposedly hypertrophied genitals, was popularly linked to their ethnic difference (Thomson, 1997, p. 70); medical discourses mandate treatments of the disabled body and shape racialized diagnoses of bodies of color. The imposition of pseudo-scientific analyses on impaired and non-white bodies enabled the proliferation of parallel institutional structures designed to contain them: hospitals and jails, which function to discipline "deviance," while scrutinizing it, analyzing it, and keeping it under surveillance. (The title of Danny Hoch's performance piece, Jails, Hospitals, & Hip-Hop, sparked this rather chilling revelation.)

Elizabeth Grosz's contention that the sight of the "freak" provokes a "dual horror and fascination" (1996, p. 64) in the spectator echoes the argument Frantz Fanon put forth almost 30 years earlier that black people are "phobogenic" objects in the white imaginary (1967, p. 151). We can infer, then, that the twin spectacles of racial and corporeal "difference" elicit similar reactions in the normative collective imagination. In Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya V. Hartman analyzes the role of spectacle in American slavery, noting that enslaved people were regularly required to stage performances for their white owners. Slavery was an aggregate of "the spectacular nature of black suffering and, conversely, the dissimulation of suffering through spectacle" (Hartman, 1997, p. 22): slave owners used spectacle to disrupt white identification with black suffering while abolitionists used the spectacularly suffering black body to "forg[e]" the "ties of sentiment" (p. 18). White audiences suffered vicariously and pitied the black body while ignoring black subjectivity; this paradigm might also be also instructive for theorizing the mechanisms by which disability fundraising telethons operate.

America understands race and (dis)ability through visual signifiers, and African-Americans and disabled people were featured in two decidedly American forms of entertainment: minstrelsy and the freak show. Images work to "visualize (or render invisible) social difference" (G. Rose, 2001, p. 10) and both the minstrel show and the freak show were relentlessly visual forms of "entertainment" that magnified the marks of bodily and racial otherness. "The minstrel show as an institution may be profitably understood as a major effort of corporeal containment" (Lott, 1993, p. 118), an attempt to manage blackness by hyperbolizing it. Similarly, freak shows "situated the extraordinary body both spatially and narratively" (Thomson, 1997, p. 60) to locate that body safely in the category of "freak" while still providing audiences with a tantalizingly close encounter. Both relied on a slip from "non-normative" to "subhuman"; both have contemporary legacies. This tortured history provokes varied responses; disability activists like Eli Clare seek to reclaim the freak show as a site of power (2003, p. 261), and many African-American performers have made profitable careers parodying popular mimicries of themselves. Nevertheless, the representational violence of both the freak and minstrel show is undeniable and indelible.

Minstrelsy and freak shows leave heritages that are highly, though differently, sexualized. The ableist imagination allows women with disabilities two options: beauty queens or poster children (Blackwell-Stratton et. al., 1988, p. 306); both reinscribe heteropatriarchal modes of relating. The choices for disabled men are equally troubling: bitter-emasculated-cripple or triumphant-hypermasculine-cripple. African-American women are typed as hypersexual Jezebels or asexual mammies, and African-American men as variations on the theme of excessively-masculine-preternaturally-sexual-less-than-human beings.

Frantz Fanon asserts that to be black is to be "forever in combat with [one's] own image" (1967, p. 194); the same could easily be said of being disabled, insofar as representations of African-Americans and people with disabilities are predicated on damaging and discriminatory norms. Thus, both groups have had to work for what Nancy Eiesland calls "cultural 'resymbolization'" (Thomson, 2004, p. 94), navigating a context that has always denied them self-representation while insisting on their presence. Disability activism and hip-hop can be understood as assertions of the right to bodily self-determination, attempts to re-draw the "cognitive maps" (Burnett and Holmes, 2001, p. 33) that have been imposed on non-normative bodies. Both discourses have critiqued prevailing models of sexuality (Wade, 1994; Waxman, 1994), interrogated the limits of public and private spaces (Quintero, 2003, p. 212), and launched a general assault on the normative structures – representational, legal, and otherwise – of American culture.

Obviously, this recounting of alignments should not elide the real and fundamental differences between the two cultures. The mainstream has received hip-hop and disability activism in wholly different ways; the commodification of hip-hop far outpaces that of disability. The histories of disabled people and people of color are empirically different, and the symbolic meanings that adhere to the figures of "the disabled body" and "the body of color" are both similar and not. Disabled citizens and citizens of color are constructed differently, have different relationships to the American legal system, and face different sorts of institutionalized discrimination. Hip-hop and disability activism should therefore be understood as disparate and unique ... but not incommensurable.

Whiteness, Blackness, and Hip-Hop Influence in the Disability Rights Movement

A quick survey of the disability movement's artistic productions reveals fairly limited hip-hop influence. The spoken-word performances of the blind African-American poet Lynn Manning have some conceptual echoes of hip-hop, reliant as he is on wordplay and an embodied critique of racism. There is also, of course, Cheryl Marie Wade's emphatic "Disability Culture Rap," which occupies a central place in disability culture. Beyond that, however, disability arts, like the disability movement itself, is predominantly though certainly not exclusively white. The paucity of hip-hop style within the disability movement can be partially explained in practical terms – "disability consciousness" typically emerges later in life, and most of the central figures in the disability movement are simply not part of the hip-hop generation. I would argue, however, that there are more complex ideological and systemic reasons for the absence of hip-hop and bodies of color from disability activism that can be traced to prevailing – if implicit – racial logics.

In America, blackness, especially black maleness, is regularly represented with/as death (Holland, 2001, p. 21; Alexander, 1994, p. 105; Holloway, 2001, p. 657). At the same time, however and contradictorily, the black male body is imagined as sexual, hypermasculine, athletic, and fearfully superior to the bodies of white men. The black female (body) is constructed in opposition to the white female (body) and represented as either more sexual or less desirable than the ideal white woman: the rabid darkly mysterious, "phallic" (Holland, 2001, p. 146) and faintly lesbian Jezebel, or the maternal and sexless Mammy.

Robyn Wiegman identifies the period following Emancipation as the time in which the collective white imaginary as we know it today was born, forged in a climate of "perceived loss of all-white social spaces" and constructions of the white person as oppressed victim (1999, p. 117). Our contemporary moment is marked by the imperative to uphold "'liberal whiteness'" (1999, p. 121) in explicit articulations, even as white power movements quietly regroup. The white racial imagination – as a collection of fantasies and anxieties about the racial other which are inculcated by a relentlessly if often covertly racist society – is fixated on black embodiment and traffics in dichotomies. It conceives of black bodies as one-dimensional and oddly static, dismissing as oxymoronic the notion of black subjectivity. The white racial imagination's inability to perceive black people as dynamic and human beings ordains the abruptness of the most visible deaths of black bodies.

Chattel slavery could not afford mass casualties of its "labor" force, and so relied more on non-fatal punishment than murder. With the end of slavery and the seeming encroachment of black people on white territory; however, the white killing of black people became more swift and uncompromising. Deaths like these are self-fulfilling prophecies, as they enable the dominant imaginary to avoid the dissonance that would come from an encounter with otherwise undeniable black humanity. I believe that this widespread white failure to perceive black people as complex and sentient (Hartman, 1997, p. 21) beings, capable of doing more than working and dying (an ideological history informed by blackface representations of happy and oblivious slaves), informs the relative whiteness of the disability rights movement today. In the white imagination, the black body is a superhuman menace impervious to everything except the ultimate impairment: death.

Admittedly, the disability movement has been forced to be strategic in its mobilizations of identity at times, fighting ableism instead of other discriminations. While this tactic is perhaps more politically efficacious than more comprehensive platforms would be, we must also assume that something is sacrificed. Here, Tobin Siebers, a prominent academic in the disability studies movement, is writing about the persistent threat of violence under which people with disabilities live. Yet he also belies the myopia to which the disability movement is prone:

We all live in an age some have called the Age of the Victim, where
we all want to be identified with the long suffering, as long as we
aren't really in pain, so let's be clear for a moment about what history
teaches us about the disabled. No human group has ever been so subject
to violence, none so marginalized (2000, p. 25).

He then cites historical examples of crimes against people with disabilities, from ancient Greece to the present time. He then explains other forms of aggression thusly:

A white man will lynch a black man to favor his own color. A man will rape a woman for the sport of other men. Nations will destroy other nations for no reason other than self-love (2000, p. 26).

Without discounting the reality of violence against people with disabilities, Siebers's word choice is troubling. Phrases like "aren't really in pain" and "no human group" in proximity to his invocation of the white-on-black crime of lynching are a haunting refrain of the habitual and historically persistent white denial of black subjectivity, which facilitated the grossly spectacular practice of lynching in the first place. The point is not to uncover a direct and explanatory link between sentiments such as this and the relative absence of bodies of color in disability activism; rather, I would argue that this passage reveals the occasionally problematic ways in which disability rights claims are structured over and against the claims of other oppressed groups.

Disability in Hip-Hop Culture

Both hip-hop and disability activism engage with the politics of excess and lack; both forms of protest address a set of bodies that have been repeatedly categorized as deficient or immoderate by various discourses and cultural norms. Hip-hop began as a decidedly minimalist art form, very often "one man and a mike." Hip-hop is an expression of "lack as opposed to excess" (Boyd, 2003, p. 13). (I also tentatively put forth that this is one response to the racialized excesses of blackface minstrelsy.) This is wholly logical given the devastated urban landscape from which hip-hop emerged in the 1970s and 1980s (T. Rose, 1994), a period marked by the flight of jobs from the inner cities and gentrifying "urban renewal" programs that further ghettoized the inner city's poor and people of color. Disability activists contend with a history of freak show displays that "underscor[ed] lack and excess" (Colligan, 2004, p. 47) of their bodies; contemporary artists have appropriated that spectacle by contending directly with the violence of the genre. The process of confronting a traumatic collective past is a crucial part of identity formation (Stevens, 2003). For people of color and people with disabilities, the violent past is a living present.

In his novel, The Day Eazy-E Died, James Earl Hardy (2001) skillfully articulates the disbelief, sadness, and anxiety provoked by rapper Eazy-E's disclosure of his HIV+ status and his subsequent death in March of 1995. Raheim, the novel's main character, engages in a brief internal monologue when he finally realizes the truth and seriousness of the diagnosis: "He ain't old. He young. He too fuckin young ta be dyin. He too fucking young to be dyin of that" (p. 9). As his communities – he is both a gay man and a hip-hopper – grieve, he is consumed with anxiety over his own sexual behaviors, vacillating between worry and denial this fictional individual is a metonym for the collective reckoning of the hip-hop community. Although E likely contracted HIV through drug use or unprotected sex with women, his death nevertheless forced the hip-hop community to confront the specter of homosexuality (Walcott, 2003, p. 143-4) and a new kind of death. A subgenre of hip-hop emerged later that decade, after the deaths of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious BIG: "'love and loss songs'" written by men in honor of dead, often murdered friends (Walcott, 2003, p. 145).

The violences of systemic racism predestine the brutality and quickness of hypervisible black dying, in which there is generally a clear demarcation between life – cut short at its prime – and death. Tricia Rose asserts that "hip hop emerges from the deindustrialization meltdown, where social alienation, prophetic imagination, and yearning intersect" (1994, p. 21), while the sudden losses of figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Emmett Till have fostered the development of African-American mourning rituals that are communalized and rooted in resistance (Holloway, 2000 and McDowell, 1999). HIV has forced us to acknowledge the "increasing numbers of 'the dying'" among the living (Heaphy, 2001, p. 129), and we can infer that this realization becomes more acute as the rate of infection in a given population rises. HIV has had a disproportionately large impact on minority communities in the United States (CDCNPIN, 2004), and I contend that the prevalence of HIV combined with deaths like that of Eazy-E – progressive and at the end of an illness – necessitated a new and different kind of grieving, and required the hip-hop community to confront (if only at the psychic or affective level) disability.

William Upski Wimsatt, writing from within Chicago's hip-hop community about a mentally ill friend, argues that "With the rise of [positive] adjectives such as "crazy," "sick," "mad," "retarded," "stupid," "ill," and "psychotic," hip-hop can now claim its place alongside heavy metal as the only other subculture to celebrate mental illness" (Wimsatt, 1994, p. 121). While Wimsatt is clearly being sarcastic, he is not being disrespectful, and his point about the resignification of language within hip-hop is excellent. I believe that this sort of vernacular engagement, combined with the haunting presence of HIV, and the death of Eazy-E, creates space within hip-hop for a serious discussion of disability.

Textual Analysis of "Stand Up"

Because blackness is forcibly absented from theorizations of disability and race is only inconsistently present in discussions of embodiment, I will read the video to the Ludacris song "Stand Up" as an intervention in these erasures, as a visual text that provides a theory of black embodiment and disability, and the corporeality of racism. White viewers are conditioned to look for the violence in hip-hop, to anticipate and be gratified by its appearance. Gwendolyn D. Pough, however, makes a compelling argument that rap "offers space for public dialogue about love" ("Love," 2002, p. 86). My viewing of this video is guided by that lens, which enables me to start from a less skeptical place and to see the possibility of "positive" representations.

Though one might argue that my overtly political analysis of the video belabors it and ascribes an artificially ideological agenda, it is important to recognize that the mainstream's preferred method for silencing hip-hop artists is naming them "apolitical" (T. Rose, 1994, p. 124). Encounters with people with disabilities are common in postcolonial texts by people of color, though the disabled body usually functions rather problematically as a site for the metaphoric address of colonial history or conveyance of anxieties about the present (Quayson, 2003). Further exploration of this point is outside the scope of this paper, but it is important to situate this video in that context.

Ludacris's 2003 album Chicken*N*Beer was his first to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200, and most critics attribute this success to the popularity of "Stand Up." The song's lyrics tell the story of a regular night at the club, and the video generally corresponds. Ludacris provides the vocals for the verses, and certain repetitions of the chorus are a dialogue with in-collaboration with Shawnna, a female hip-hop artist:

Ludacris: When I move, you move
Shawnna: Just like that?

In the video, Ludacris himself is the only person who speaks regularly. The woman's part of the song is mouthed briefly by two different women but otherwise is an ambient voice. The evening Ludacris describes in the song is typical – women lined up outside waiting to get in, a hassle with the manager, and so on. Even the climactic intrusion of the white authorities – in the form of the fire marshal who wants to "shut us down" – is nothing unusual for young black people.

The sheer ordinariness of the evening is crucial to understanding it from a disability perspective; this video employs what Rosemarie Garland Thomson calls the "visual rhetoric" of "the realistic," which, although it "domesticate[s]" disability (2002, p. 69), does not sensationalize it. The bodily "impairments" in "Stand Up" are significant, but they are not spectacular. In the video, there are two little people dancing, four wheelchair dancers (an individual woman and a trio of men), an "overweight" woman, and an image of Ludacris with a "club foot"; I will treat each representation in turn below, (although it should be noted that this is not the order in which they appear in the video.)

First, though, it is important to acknowledge that Ludacris portrays bodies as malleable. Throughout the video, we see body parts in flux, most obviously when a woman's ass grows as Ludacris is kissing her. Though this instance echoes the history of women as quintessential freaks, there are also images that counteract this reading, namely the reappearance of men's body parts in different forms or sizes throughout the video. Mary Russo notes that "the grotesque body is continuous process" (1997, p. 328), and the video plays with bodily stasis and symmetry, debunking fantasies of infallibility. Ludacris's own body changes: He appears as an animation at times, his face is superimposed on a kicking infant's body, his hair expands to a paradoxically huge Afro by the end of the video, and his proportions change, so that he is thoroughly de-formed by the end. Oversized headphones, records, bottles of beer, and one undeniably phallic giant chicken drumstick all interrogate norms of size and dimension.

Accordingly, the first image of disability we see is two little people of color dancing. Ludacris invokes them a few lines earlier: "Watch out for the medallion / my diamonds are reckless / feels like a midget is hanging from my necklace." In the video, however, the "midget" is actually an average-sized man, painted silver, bound and dangling at Ludacris's waist. The little people appear during the chorus, which usually corresponds to montage shots of people dancing at the club. They are shown together, among "normal" couples who do not stare or even seem to notice their presence. The camera captures them from a respectful distance and at their height; there is no sense of spectacle, even though they are the focus. The little people are simply part of the community of dancers, marked, though not unproblematically, as "normal" by their ability to participate successfully in this heterosexual ritual.  

"Stand Up" briefly features a beautiful woman dancing in a wheelchair. Again, she appears during the chorus and among the other dancers, but she's got almost the whole floor to herself; the nondisabled people have arrayed themselves along the periphery. The male wheelchair dancers are also visible in the background, having ceded their territory to a talented woman. The gesture of retreat, however, is not coded as one of repulsion or pity, but rather as one of courtesy and admiration; good dancers deserve space. Everyone is watching her, but she is free from the angry "vise grip" (Clare, 2003, p. 257) of The Stare. The others are taking a rather uncomplicated pleasure from watching her: she is a beautiful woman dancing.

Ellen Stohl, a model and actress who was paralyzed in a car accident, is a controversial figure in disability history. In 1987, shortly after her injury, Stohl wanted to demonstrate that disability hadn't ruined her (sexual) life, and petitioned Playboy to feature her as a centerfold; they agreed (Schriempf, 2001, p. 55), though not without reservations. The resulting spread and Stohl's satisfaction with it were so scandalous that people are still talking about it today, questioning whether she appeared "disabled" enough in the photos (which consistently hid or de-emphasized her legs and never showed her in a wheelchair) and predictably, whether it is "liberating" for disabled women to appear in soft porn.

The wheelchair dancer in "Stand Up," however, dodges all those questions and just does her thing. Nancy Mairs writes, "I doubt that any body, whether in trouble or out, can fully conceive of a self without an other to stroke it ... into being and well-being" (1996, p. 49). While the wheelchair dancer isn't in contact with any other bodies, she is still in community with a group of people in a highly sexualized context. By appreciating her, they help her – even though she doesn't "need" it – to be beautiful. Many feminist disability activists argue that the mainstream feminist critique of beauty standards fails to acknowledge the different relationship that disabled women have to aesthetic ideals; that women with disabilities should be entitled to aspire to those norms and feel satisfied if they achieve them. If we conceive of gender as a performative process, this female wheelchair dancer, through her movements and appearance, willfully and successfully marks herself as a woman, because of and not despite her disability. She offers a way to transcend intractable debates about beauty by demanding and receiving recognition of her embodied appeal. And though this solution is, perhaps, provisional, rooted as it is to a context that is outside of the mainstream, it nevertheless serves as an example of a way out.

"Stand Up" provides a similar retreat to the "overweight" dancer that it features, an affirming representation of "fatness," the likes of which are painfully scarce in popular culture (LeBesco, 2001). One of the newest debates within the disability movement is whether or not obesity should be considered a disability. The categorization of "fatness" as a socially constructed disability finds an advocate in academic April Herndon, who draws parallels between the fat community and other disability subgroups to make the claim that fat people are disabled by a fatphobic American culture; she also notes that because "fatness is not specifically named in the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act], it is largely invisible as a disability. (Herndon, 2002, p. 122) By drawing a parallel to deaf culture, Herndon "suggest[s] that Fat is a shared political identity" (Herndon, 2002, p. 128), and that there is revolutionary potential in such a recognition for disability culture and feminism. While many of Herndon's points are well-taken, the text of "Stand Up" provides an interesting (but not necessarily undermining) response to the construction of fatness as a disability.

Early in "Stand Up," Ludacris says that he'd be interested in a not-skinny woman: "What's wrong? / The club and the moon is full / and I'm lookin' for a thick young lady to pull ...." Shortly thereafter, we see Ludacris appreciatively watching a large woman dancing with another man, while her date scowls jealously: "Go on wit' your big ass / And let me see somethin' / And tell your little friend / He can quit mean muggin' ...." As with the other non-normative bodies in the video, she's shown dancing just like anybody else, and is not made spectacular by the camera. Indeed, she is one of the most popular women we see here: Her date is jealous, she's got a man to dance with, and Ludacris is into it. She's shown as a reasonably talented dancer and quite un-disabled, whether we define obesity as a physical impairment or a socially-defined disability (a bodily attribute that might be detrimental if it wasn't perceived as abnormal).

Once again, "Stand Up" provides a mechanism for moving beyond confounding theoretical debates. The presence of this "overweight" woman forces a reconsideration of the meaning of disability and holds the theory of fatness-as-disability accountable to a material reality that might not correspond. This is not to say that standards of "health" or "beauty" vary predictably by race, but that this specific visual text provides another way of thinking through "fatness." Of course, I am not implying that sexual popularity should be understood as proof of freedom from oppression (indeed, quite the contrary might be true). But if disability is a designation defined largely through comparison and, more importantly, interaction, the way that this woman's community receives her suggests that she is viewed as neither extraordinary nor objectionable. Further, I would argue that this video provides a representation of "corpulence" that accords resoundingly with the radical revisioning of fatness for which Kathleen LeBesco argues in "Queering Fat Bodies/Politics" (2001). Fat is an identity marker that is hyper-visible (p. 79), but the visual logic of this video acknowledges this but does not satirize it. The dancing woman of size is shot from a middle distance; the frame gives her body plenty of room while allowing her to occupy the center of the field, highlighting her desirability. LeBesco asserts that the central question of a queer politics of fat liberation should be: "What performance in what context will help destabilize naturalized identity categories?" (p. 77). The "overweight" dancer in this video enacts an identity that is both cognizant of her size and unashamed of it, refusing to adopt the norms that construct "fat" and "sexy" as mutually exclusive; she has agency.

The only disabled bodies that recur in "Stand Up" are those of the three male wheelchair dancers, attractive men of color who dance in a loose unison. American culture encourages disabled males to fight their impairments "like a man" (Wilson, 2002); the performance of the male wheelchair dancers here bears that out. We catch a brief sight of the male dancers about two minutes into the video and then witness a more prolonged performance at the very end. In their final appearance, they are dancing in their chairs and Ludacris is repeatedly exhorting everyone to "Stand Up." And they do! They get up – faintly miraculously – out of their chairs and dance. Of course, the point of disability activism is not the transcendence of the physical impairment but a challenge to the construction of that impairment as a disability; the fact that these men can dance (without wheelchairs) illustrates that race impacts the efficacy of that challenge.

Images of the men dancing are interspersed with shots of the infant Ludacris getting his diaper changed by a sexy woman who gently scolds him. The simultaneous transition from men-in-wheelchairs to men-who-can-dance-without-wheelchairs and from Ludacris-as-hip-hop-giant to Ludacris-as-helpless-infant is a striking upset, readable as a commentary on bodily fallibility and an allusion to the ultimately unrealizable fantasy of permanently "transcend[ing]" (Lindgren, 2004, p. 150) the limits of the body. It indicates that anything, for better or worse, is possible. The wheelchair dancers are granted only about 20 seconds of nondisabledness; however, moments before the video ends, it is as if gravity has suddenly increased: they fall violently to the floor and are pulled back, as if on invisible tethers, toward their chairs. This scene reminds us that we cannot escape the reality of our bodies for long, especially if those bodies are disabled, especially if they are of color.

Because there is a female wheelchair dancer in the video, it is not insignificant that it is the men who are able to Stand Up. There are a host of possible interpretations of this, but it does hint that disabled women are more "bodily" than disabled men. While this line of reasoning could be extended to claim that it is indicative of an operative sexism, I would argue for a different reading. I have treated this video as a site of informal theorization about the place of the disabled body, particularly but not exclusively the disabled body of color, in American society. I believe that the videographic choice to give the men more "freedom" is a way of highlighting intersectionality, acknowledging that disabled women of color are more culturally disadvantaged, more forcibly embodied, than their male counterparts.

The gender-savvy race-sensitive theorization of disability is most powerfully expressed by Ludacris's enormous white shoe. In this scene, Ludacris appears in the club, surrounded by dancing people of color, his right foot encased in an oversized white shoe. The most straightforward interpretation is that this is another image of bodily "deformity" or difference, but the combination of the lyrics and the visual narrative complicate the message. At this point in the song Ludacris is almost shouting, "Stand up!" and gesturing with his arms to reinforce his instructions. As he calls out, "Stand up!," he stomps with his big white foot, and all the people of color fall. The people of color try to stand up, but before they are fully upright, he stomps and tells them to "Stand up!" as they drop to the floor. This happens three times. The fourth time, a man of color falls (evidently through the ceiling) and crashes to the floor directly in front of the camera, where he lies writhing until the end of the scene.

Immediately thereafter, we see the bureaucratic white fire marshal sauntering through the club: "Damn right the fire marshal wanna shut us down / Get us out so someone can gun us down." Encounters with white authorities are quintessential features of hip-hop expressions, both visual and lyrical. The video comments on race and American racism while creating a space within which being a person of color is unremarkable. "Rappers ... tell alternative stories of contact with police ... and draw portraits of contact with dominant groups in which the hidden transcript inverts/subverts the public, dominant transcript" (T. Rose, 1994, p. 101). Ludacris is saying something about the disabling power of institutionalized white racism. Ludacris sophisticates the argument that disability is socially constructed by demonstrating the extent to which racism literally and figuratively disables people of color.

The intrusion of the fire marshal, the only visibly "white" person in the video, into the club and into the frame, throws the non-whiteness of all the other characters into relief. Typically, visual disruption comes from the presence of a person of color in an otherwise white landscape, much like the disabled figure in a group of the nondisabled becomes the center of attention. In "Stand Up," however, that process is reversed; "race" becomes visible only when whiteness has forced its way in. The presence of the officer does not, however, make the race of the bodies of color remarkable; rather, by clearly framing the difference of the officer, the video makes a spectacle of powerful nondisabled white maleness, a radical visual inversion.

After the male wheelchair dancers have been reseated, there is a quick cut to Ludacris's face, and the video ends with a close-up of him: "STAND UP!" Ludacris's persona in the video has become, by this point, somewhat ... ludicrous; his transitions between adulthood and infancy and to cartoon animation and back in a diegetic space where everything is excessive, mark him as a comic figure. The final exhortation to stand up – given the context of humor and play – makes emphatic the irony of the song's title and normative discourses generally that encourage people of color and people with disabilities to metaphorically "stand up" and overcome the structural obstacles to their success and survival.

William Upski Wimsatt concludes his brief essay on mental illness and hip-hop with some final thoughts on his mentally ill friend. He writes: "[My friend] is not all that hard to understand. He's creative and smart and weird and he's been through a lot of shit – just like every other original hip-hopper I know" (1994, p. 123). His colloquial systemic explanation of mental illness parallels Ludacris's demonstration of the racial politics of physical disability. Obviously, I cannot claim that Ludacris intended for his video to be read this way, but because the visual language of music videos is especially symbolic (and therefore often inscrutable), I believe they are inherently potentially polyvocal and offer multiple points of entry for the audience. I am not arguing that the video must only be read this way, but rather that it can be read this way, and that such a reading is politically significant.

Implications and Conclusions

Of course, we must be cautious about extrapolating too far or too much from a single cultural artifact. But given Ludacris's tremendous popularity and the initially heavy rotation of the video "Stand Up" on MTV and its affiliates, it is safe to assume that this particular visual text reached a wide audience, many of whom would find Ludacris recognizable and persuasive. Whether or not this video will trigger a proliferation of similarly thoughtful representations of disability in hip-hop remains to be seen; however, even if it does not, this video should still be understood as a happy anomaly rather than an aberration.

Despite the ostensibly divergent pasts and presents of disability rights activism and hip-hop, we can make a strong case for their interrelatedness, and not simply because they are both responses to oppression. Perhaps more important than a revelation of the connections between hip-hop and disability is an assertion of their relevance to one another, the way that each critique of American cultural norms can deepen, challenge, provoke, and enhance the other. The intersections of hip-hop and disability are rarely explicit or as obvious as they are in "Stand Up." Intersections are never tidy. The trick, then, is to revel in the messiness and make it productive.

The question becomes one of operationalizing the potentials that I sought to illuminate here. What kind of work has to be done so that hip-hop can be consistently affirming of people with disabilities and disability activism can be assiduous in its engagement of racism? How can the vexed legacies that both groups have inherited be confronted without reinscribing their violences? Is there a way to be strategic in our assaults on oppression without excision of different though similarly situated others? Can the communities converse with and represent one another without appropriation? How can we articulate the pleasure of inhabiting a range of non-normative bodies? And finally: if we attend to unexpected intersections, what other possibilities can we begin to envision?


Many thanks to my fellow M.A. student Sue Brennan for obtaining a copy of the "Stand Up" video for me and helping me think through its significance. Thanks to Dr. Brenda Jo Brueggemann for her enthusiasm and to Dr. Ruby Tapia for her patient, insightful critiques and willingness to help me bring it to fruition. Thanks also to the DSQ anonymous peer reviewers for their detailed suggestions.


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